Updated: March 28, 2013 6:48AM
MINNEAPOLIS — Trevor Mbakwe had 21 points and 12 rebounds to help Minnesota take down No. 1 Indiana 77-73 on Tuesday night, the seventh time the top-ranked team in The Associated Press’ poll has lost a game this season.
Andre Hollins added 16 points for the Gophers (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten), who outrebounded Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers by a whopping 44-30 and solidified their slipping NCAA tournament case with an emphatic performance against the Big Ten leaders. The fans rushed the court as the last seconds ticked off, the first time that’s happened here in years.
Zeller was held to nine points with four turnovers for the Hoosiers (24-4, 12-3), who have held the No. 1 ranking for 10 of 17 polls this season including the last four. Victor Oladipo scored 16 points, but 14 of the 17 points by Jordan Hulls came before halftime.
Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior, posted his conference-leading seventh double-double. At 24 years old, he was a man among boys in many ways in this game, dominating both ends of the court when the Gophers needed him most. Minnesota had 23 offensive rebounds.
Elliott Eliason, who played every bit as well as Zeller, the slender sophomore in the post for the visitors, scored seven straight points for Minnesota to tie the game at 46 shortly after Oladipo’s reverse layup had given the Hoosiers a 44-36 lead, their biggest of the game.
Hollins, who missed eight of his first nine shots, scraped off a high screen by Eliason to pull up for a 3-pointer and give the Gophers a 51-48 lead underneath the 9-minute mark. Mbakwe got a rebound to keep a key possession alive then grabbed another board to set up his off-balance bank shot for a 56-53 lead for Minnesota with 7:22 left.
Mbakwe was called for a loudly questioned blocking foul, his fourth, with 4:39 remaining on Zeller’s fast-break layup that put the Hoosiers up 59-58. But Austin Hollins answered with a pump-fake layup that drew a foul for a three-point play and a 61-59 lead for the Gophers.
Joe Coleman’s fast-break dunk with 2:35 left lifted Minnesota to a 68-61 edge, enough of a cushion to withstand a couple of 3-pointers by Christian Watford and one by Hulls in the closing minutes.
Mbakwe, who played for Indiana coach Tom Crean when they were at Marquette in 2007-08, has had some of his better games against the Hoosiers. This was his best. He gave the Gophers and their home crowd a double-shot of energy early with 10 points in the first 6½ minutes, plus a jarring block of Zeller’s inside shot that knocked the 7-footer to the court. Coach Tubby Smith took Mbakwe out for a breather, though, and the Hoosiers went on a 10-0 run capped by another behind-the-arc swish from Hulls.
Zeller, Indiana’s leading scorer and the second-best shooter in the Big Ten behind Oladipo, was 0 for 4 from the field in the first half with two turnovers, two fouls and two points. Mbakwe picked up his second foul when Oladipo drew contact with 4:02 left before the break and sat until the buzzer. The Gophers scored only three points in the last 7 minutes of the half.
The Hoosiers started the week with a two-game lead in the loss column over Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin, poised for their first outright Big Ten regular season championship since going 17-1 in 1993 during Bob Knight’s heyday as coach. With home games against Iowa and Ohio State, Indiana has a chance to clinch the title before the finale at Michigan on March 10.
Six weeks ago, this game looked like one of the many marquee matchups that have marked Big Ten play this season, with a conference as strong as it’s been in maybe decades. But while the Hoosiers kept winning after their 88-81 hold-on-at-the-end victory on Jan. 12 over then-No. 8 Minnesota, the Gophers sputtered.
Their half-court offense in particular has caused trouble, with an inability to solve zone defenses and a glaring lack of confidence, identity or purpose on so many possessions over the last few weeks. Their struggles were never more pronounced than in their last two games, in defeat by 21 points at Iowa and 26 points at Ohio State. Even on this night, despite the significant improvement, they looked lost at times when Mbakwe wasn’t on the court.
So here they were after a much-needed weekend break in the schedule, back on their uniquely raised home court and trying desperately to boost spirits that have sagged under the weight of eight losses in their previous 11 games. Smith even had the team meet with a sports psychologist. Over their last 10 games, they averaged only 57 points and hadn’t topped 58 in five games since Feb. 3. After being ranked in 11 straight polls, the Gophers didn’t get one vote this week.
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